Saturday, February 6, 2016

Technological Determinism (basically a bunch of academic waffle so skip this if it bores you)

Basically, what's going to follow here is a bunch of semi-masticated academic musings, so bear with me if this topic interests you. Feel free to jump in with waffle of your own in the comments section. Shoot my thoughts down in flame if need be. The point is to think about whether technology determines the nature of mass communication (as per my media studies this semester). Basically, what the fat green textbook (Media Studies: Media History, Media and Society edited by Pieter J Fourie) tells us is that technological determinism is the belief that technology drives social change, culture, economics and politics.

Media is a core function of society, especially if we look at *how* exactly we've shared information throughout the ages. We've gone from verbal/oral cultural tradition, to mixing pigments and smearing them on rock ... or even carving little pictograms of animals. And we've progressed to making sculptures on rock or writing on paper, to make a more binding mark. Mostly, our ways of employing media, initially by a select few who were educated (priests, scribes, merchants) had the power to tell their particular stories or share their versions of events, and lay them down for future generations.

We cannot remember everything that we discuss, so it makes sense to somehow find a way to record it, and the next step is naturally how we disseminate this information. Libraries, in old times, were the vast repositories of knowledge, the stacks haunted by librarians and scribes with the specialised skills and training to discern which knowledge is useful and to share it with those who have the privilege to enter those hallowed halls.

Schools, universities and other centres of learning have had, historically, an degree of exclusivity in many cases. Even today, many do not have the benefit of decent education, but our access to knowledge isn't curtailed as it was before.

Radio, TV, film ... these are all ways in which a select group of communicators can reach out to many hundreds of thousands of people who are now consumers of media.

Ever sat around at a table where a bunch of folks have all seen a movie? (Here's a somewhat silly example – you either like Star Wars, or you don't, and this immediately divides people into two camps, perhaps even somewhat vocally.) But I'm sure you get my picture.

Yet there's still a degree of exclusivity – you have a film production company or broadcaster who has a particular set of values, that they communicate. They have a vetting process, with the power to decide which information they're going to share. What is news? What is important? What do they feel people should know?

We've had, in the past, the written word to bind, to be contractual. Now we've got "I saw it on TV" which offers visual and aural aspects to make things real, to solidify events in people's minds. This is the story. This is the preferred narrative. A skilled editor understands the power of shaping people's emotions and thoughts by choosing which narrative to portray. What is the underlining meaning?

Yet media have changed yet again during the past decade – dramatically so with the rise of social networks and the near-instantaneous communication. News breaks online as fast as people can type or share videos of images. These can be shared by the simple touch of a button. It's now not so much a fact of jealously hoarded and carefully disseminated information, but rather how we wade through and choose *which* information we'll take in.

We are drowning in news feeds. We also now, more than ever before, have the power to create our personal echo chamber to cut out the noise we don't want. How do we know which stories to put stock in? Without a (yes, ultimately biased) vetting process, how does one discern bullshit from authentic value?

There are definite benefits to this shrinking of communication – the fact that geological separation at the end of the day really doesn't matter, not when we are a Skype call away or can email a letter in the space of half a minute and know the recipient will have it appear in their inbox a minute later, if not sooner.

We can access the greatest libraries in the world that have no physical shelves in the space of minutes. We can share their information. The real mad skills we need now is deciding which information we're going to use. It's not so much how much knowledge we have, but how and when we choose to access it. The rule book for social interaction has changed as we document our lives in minute detail. The emphasis is on the individual, and perhaps best expressed in the odious notion of leaving our hashtagged #selfie – our own stab at immortality perhaps in an ephemeral world. To close, we have the power at our own fingertips; we are our own gatekeepers, and notions of privacy have shifted dramatically. You are not as alone as you sometimes think you feel.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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